The science of a hangover

Bam! You’re awake! What’s happened? What time is it? You lean over to check the clock by your bed and, the very instant you move, you realise something is wrong. Very hideously wrong…

You’re hungover… oh so hungover!

You have been woken by the fact that it feels like someone is angrily trying to pick axe their way out of your skull. This is combined with a nauseating churning deep within your stomach which makes you suspect that someone reminiscent of Alien is about to occur! I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this has experienced that particular breed of evil hangover that leaves you feeling like roadkill; but what is a hangover?

­Did you know that the formal name for a hangov­er is veisalgia? This is apparently from the Norwegian word for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis) and the Greek word for “pain” (algia). Seems only appropriate!

In the quest to solve the cause of debilitating hangovers, I delved into the scientific literature. One of the first papers I read stated, “Hangovers are a frequent, though unpleasant, experience among people who drink to intoxication. Despite the prevalence of hangovers, however, this condition is not well understood scientifically.” Well that’s it, I thought, I shall have to continue to suffer! But fear not, it appears that the scientific community is able to give us some pointers…

That parched feeling when you wake up (You know the one? It feels like you might have been in a desert and not seen water for over a week… yes that one!) is due to the fact that alcohol is a diuretic. It prevents the pea sized pituitary gland releasing a hormone which allows the kidneys to keep water in your body; meaning urine production goes into overdrive! Figures vary but roughly 4 drinks will result in about 0.6-1 litre of pee! The copious amounts of pee leads to embarrassingly frequent toilet stops and expels a lot of important bodily salts and even glucose.

This dehydration could also lead to a horrible phenomenon I like to call raisin brain. One reference (although I’ve yet to find another) said that your dehydrated brain actually shrinks and pulls slightly on its membrane resulting in pain, a lot of pain. Brutal!

An extra delightful addition is the fact that alcohol directly irritates the stomach and intestines; it inflames the stomach lining and prevents it from emptying. On top of this it increases the production of various gastrointestinal secretions; including gastric acid. All in all these effects can explain the Alien like churning and potential “praying to the porcelain God” events.

One thing you must remember is… the liver is most definitely not evil! It carries out a two step breakdown of alcohol to remove the horribly high amounts pulsing around your blood vessels. The first step of degrading the alcohol producing a reactive substance called acetaldehyde. It builds up as the liver struggles to keep up with the high alcohol levels and, because it binds to various compounds around the body, can lead to high heart rate and, dare I say it, toilet hugging.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Drunk sleep is not proper sleep”? Well there is scientific validity in it. Despite being a sedative, alcohol induced sleep is of poor quality; there is less time spent dreaming sweet dreams during REM sleep. It also results in that horrible situation where you are wide awake far too early after a night out and you cannot for love or money get back to sleep. Alcohol affects the sensitivity of your brain to certain neurotransmitters in the presence of alcohol but when it’s gone the “hyper-sensitivity” persists and your brain stays in overdrive. Bam! You’re awake!

On top of this alcohol actually relaxes the throat and muscles controlling the airways, which is the main cause of the harmonious snoring with which drunken friends/other halves serenade you!

It may be stating the obvious but hangovers don’t make us happy; in fact that make us down right irritable. Although this might be in part to the previously mentioned horrendous physical impairments; the fact that your metabolism is altered by alcohol also contributes. Metabolic products such as lactic acid which are usually broken down by your poor non-evil liver build up, and make you feel like you’ve run a marathon overnight and forgotten to stretch afterwards. On top of this your blood sugar falls. Glucose, the dominant blood sugar, is the main source of energy for your brain. Decreased amounts lead to “mood disturbances” and feeling of fatigue and weakness!

Well, that’s it! I’m never drinking again… well maybe never…

3 thoughts on “The science of a hangover

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